5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In the Wine & Spirits Industry
Featuring Asher Rubinstein, Partner at Gallet Dreyer & Berkey, LLP. Interviewed by Doug Noll, Writer at Authority Magazine.
The world of wine and spirits is not only about the nuances of taste, aroma, and presentation but also about understanding the intricacies of the business, mastering the craft, and building meaningful relationships. It’s an industry rich in tradition, yet ever-evolving with trends, technologies, and tastes. Navigating this fascinating landscape requires a blend of passion, knowledge, strategy, and a touch of artistry.
In this series, we aim to shed light on the key ingredients that brew success in the wine and spirits industry. We’re speaking to industry veterans, master sommeliers, distillers, marketers, and professionals in the wine and spirits industry to discuss the essential elements needed to create a highly successful career in the industry. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Asher Rubinstein.
Asher Rubinstein is a partner at the law firm of Gallet, Dreyer & Berkey LLP in New York City, is on the board of directors of the Knights of Alba, NYC, and is an officer of the New York Wine & Food Society. Asher represents and advises wine, spirits, food and restaurant clients, including Michelin-starred chefs and restaurateurs, award-winning winemakers, wine and spirits importers, and their partners and financiers.
When not advising on wine and spirits, Asher’s legal practice also involves asset protection, tax and estate planning.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your origin story, and your childhood?
I was born in Israel and moved to New York City at a young age. I was brought up in NYC and its suburbs and moved back to New York City after college.
Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the wine and spirits industry?
In college, when everyone else was drinking cheap beer, I was the guy studying esoteric Belgian Ales made by monks in monasteries. That also coincided with the beginning of the craft beer movement in the US, and the early microbreweries. A few years later, I was in law school just as some of these microbreweries were going through Initial Public Offerings. So, there was a confluence of my side interest and my studies of corporate law and corporate finance. This was also the time, in the 1990s, that the single malt scotch craze was beginning. And along the way, I was also developing my own palate, from good beer in college, to good scotch during law school. Then my palate found fine wine and I’ve remained there ever since. Representing wine, spirits and restaurant clients allows me to fuse my passions for wine and food with my legal practice.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began as an attorney? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I once represented a famous NYC art gallery owner in an estate dispute, and the dispute concerned ownership of assets including many works of art. Lawyers for both sides met at a loft in the NYC Meatpacking District in 1999, when it was still very gritty and rough. The loft was partially residential and partial studio space, and we went through the art. To our surprise, we were dealing with Rothkos and Lichtensteins, stacked casually against the walls. I was a young lawyer at the time, and it showed me that a legal practice could involve, and center around, things I love, from art to fine wine.
It has been said that sometimes our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the late 1990s, a wine community developed in New York City as a result of the Internet connecting like-minded wine collectors who liked to get together and share good wine. I was a young and new collector in this group, and I was invited to a wine dinner at a Park Avenue apartment with some very serious wine collectors (and the late importer, Joe Dressner). The wine was flowing, and we were up to the cheese course, and there was a French cheese that was in some sort of metallic device with a handle, and I was instructed to turn the handle which scrapes off a thin layer of cheese. I was young, inexperienced and definitely not fancy and I turned the handle, and everyone screamed “you’re turning it the wrong way!” Apparently, I went counterclockwise, and this was a clockwise cheese. I was very embarrassed. But even a gaffe as significant as turning a cheese device counterclockwise was ultimately forgiven and cemented some long-lasting relationships in the wine world.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I practiced law with my father for eighteen years, and he definitely taught me over the years. What’s interesting is how we complimented each other.
He and I were together on a business trip to the Cayman Islands, at a dinner with bankers and professional trustees, at the home of the owner of a bank. The banker served a Bordeaux from his own cellar, and he and I bonded over the wine. Everyone at the table was talking about law and banking, which was the reason we were there, but it was the bonding over the Bordeaux that eventually resulted in us doing business together.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Patience — Sometimes, deals come together quickly, but more often, transactions and relationships are the products of careful thought and evolution. Don’t be hasty.
Humility — The world is a completely random and, to put it mildly, an unkind place. Overconfidence and hubris are the marks of inexperience.
Measured Ambition — I think that more opportunities come to those who are active and pursue those opportunities, rather than those who sit on the sidelines and are more passive.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’ve been involved in interesting new developments in the wine and spirits industry. Some are newer ways of looking at traditional things, like fractional ownership of casks of whiskey or barrels of Barolo. Some are cutting edge, like using blockchain and similar technology to ensure chain-of-title and authenticity of wine. This is very important because all luxury goods are prone to counterfeiting, and we’ve seen multiple, high-profile incidents of wine counterfeiting in recent years. In addition, with wine we have the added existential need for proper temperature and humidity throughout every stage of a wine’s life, from transportation to the market to the eventual aging in the cellar. I also represent chefs and others in hospitality who are doing very novel things, from creating thrilling new recipes that win them Michelin stars, to expanding into new markets.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the wine and spirits industry today?
- Diversity and depth of product — just look at the selection of amaro or sōchū imported today versus ten years ago. If you make something amazing, even in small quantities in a remote location, there are ways to promote your product and bring it to market.
- Artisanal domestic producers — it’s really just the onshore aspect of my answer above regarding imported products. I absolutely love driving in a rural area and coming upon a small distillery. We have many of them in the Hudson Valley, Catskills and Berkshire Mountains nearby to New York City, as well as a few within the City itself, and there are many different, excellent products available. I’ll add that this applies not only to wine and spirits but food products as well, like cheese, for example, which dovetails with the wine and spirits industry.
- I’m also quite intrigued by collaborations between the worlds of wine, art and music. I have friends who are fusing wine and Hip-Hop events, for instance. It harkens back to, for example, Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, except today it involves Champagne and Riesling.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
- Unfortunately, the wine and spirits industry is still a sexist and male-dominated industry. The industry must move toward more respect for women. I’m particularly saddened at the incidents of sexual harassment at trade events that were likely aggravated by consumption of alcohol.
- I’m also concerned with the prevalence of fraud in our industry, from counterfeiting not only fine wine but expensive whiskey, to wine Ponzi schemes, to implosions of famous and long-lived wine retailers. When this happens, consumers and collectors suffer losses and there is a ripple effect through the industry and the courts. There needs to be better enforcement and accountability.
- As a nation, we don’t have complete freedom to ship alcohol across state lines. I can send a bottle of olive oil to my friend in another state, but I have to jump through hoops to send a bottle of wine.
And let’s hope that tariffs don’t return if we have a change in the White House. Sorry, that’s four concerns.
You are a “Wine and Spirits Insider.” If you had to advise someone about 5 non-intuitive things one should know to succeed in the wine and spirits industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?
- Important vineyards and “hot” producers get press and drive sales, but pay attention to the underlying infrastructure. There is a tremendous need for banal but fundamental requirements of the industry, like proper warehousing, shipping and logistics.
- Recognize societal shifts and challenges. Not that long ago, marijuana was illegal. Today, it’s legal in many states (although not federally, yet). Going further, look at what’s happening with mushrooms in Western states like Oregon. What effect will that have on the wine and spirits industry?
- Relationships are as important as skills and knowledge. Beyond merely drinking rare and exclusive wines, I’ve had access to the wineries and winemakers themselves, even the “impossible” and exclusive estates, simply because of connections. In the wine and spirits world, people love to share their passion with others. Foster your network and not only stay in touch, stay interested.
- “Sustainable” is the most overused and inaccurately used word in advertising, including wine and spirits. “Iconic” is a close second. Honest marketing is so much more impressive to me than buzz words.
- Make your own opportunities. I remember my first trip to Piedmont in 2006. I was able to barrel-taste Monfortino with Roberto Conterno, and then we had dinner. How? I sent him a fax and asked him to barrel-taste. People asked how I got an appointment at Gaja? I faxed Gaja also. (Yes, I’m old enough to have used a fax machine.)
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Slow and steady wins the race. Each year brings newer, interesting fusions between wine and spirits and the law. Last year, we had wine NFTs. This year, I worked on private label Kosher Amarone. Neither existed a few years ago. The arc of a career allows one to observe trends, and how the industry evolves. This applies to wine and spirits, restaurants, and the law overall.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Well, we are talking about wines and spirits and the law, so please forgive me for venturing into politics, but it’s hard not to, given the current state of the world. I can’t help but observe that democracy, which I believe qualifies as “a movement“, seems to foster peace, co-acceptance and prosperity to a much greater degree than those areas of the world where democracy has not been in place. So, I would transport democracy the world over, to promote the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people.